Hyderabad, India – Sitting in a small clearing in the cramped refugee camp he calls home, Mohammad Kareem cuts a stark figure.
His eyes are intense, flickering with a quiet rage, and his body language forlorn. Mohammad incessantly chews on betel nut, almost as if to distract himself from the horrors he’s trying hard to forget.
Removed from all the chatter around him, Mohammad is a lonely figure in the middle of a lively camp where neighbours mill about outside their darkened tarpaulin homes and conversation serves as comfort.
But I soon realise why Mohammad appears tuned out. He’s new here. New to this camp, new to the city of Hyderabad, new to India – and new to the harsh reality of being separated from his wife, daughter, mother and sister.
Mohammad says he is 32 years old and that he is from Rakhine state in Myanmar.
He arrived in Hyderabad three days ago, he says, and headed straight to this place, known to Rohingya migrants in the southern Indian city of Hyderabad as “camp one”, in Balapur.
This is a place where many in the community seek to reboot their lives, starting with freeing themselves from the constant fear of persecution they feel back home.
Mohammad’s story is hard to follow. Our conversation is punctuated with translations in Rohingya language, Hindi and English.
Here is his account: “The Buddhists don’t want Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. They tell us that we don’t belong to Myanmar.
“They say we belong to Bangladesh, India, Malaysia … anywhere but Myanmar. They tell us we need to go away. They come and burn our houses and our mosques, torture and kill us to drive us away.
“We can’t continue living in a land where we have no peace and no hope for justice. That’s why we risk our lives to get out of the country.
“The way out of Myanmar is a long and dangerous one. Many can’t make it. Those who try and cross over to countries like Malaysia, Japan and Thailand by boat often sink or get caught and are thrown into prison.”
That’s why I decided to escape with my family to India.
I had heard that the people of India were welcoming to people like us.
I knew there were other Rohingya Muslims who were living here, as some of my relatives managed to find a home here when they escaped Myanmar.
I thought my family would be safe as well if we came here.
So I left home with my wife and nine-month-old daughter under the cover of darkness.
Our first stop was Chittagong in Bangladesh. Some locals there helped us cross the border into India and we arrived in the eastern Indian state of West Bengal.
But just then, things went very wrong for us.
The authorities took away my wife and daughter. I somehow managed to escape. I don’t know where they are anymore. My mother and sister too are still stuck in Myanmar.
I just don’t know what to do to trace my family and bring everyone to a place of safety.”